Red alert: What’s the problem with France’s weather warning system?

After the deadly flooding that claimed at least 11 lives in the south west of France, some are pointing the finger of blame at the country's official weather warning system. But is this really fair or was the tragic situation simply unavoidable?

Red alert: What's the problem with France's weather warning system?
Devastating flooding ravaged the southwestern area of France around Carcassonne on Sunday night and early on Monday morning, killing at least 11. Photo: AFP
Devastating flooding ravaged the southwestern area of France around Carcassonne on Sunday night and early on Monday morning, killing at least 11. 
But while the extreme weather first hit overnight on Sunday, the country's national weather agency Meteo France only placed the worst hit department of Aude on red alert — the very highest warning — at 6 am on Monday, once the heaviest rains had already passed and the rivers had burst their banks. 
Red alert indicates that people should practice “absolute vigilance” due to the risk of “dangerous weather of an exceptional intensity”.
Despite the apparent extremity of the situation throughout Sunday, Aude remained on orange alert — the second highest warning.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the delay in putting the red alert in place has led to much anger, with questions being raised over the Météo France's weather warning system and if it really does alert people to the coming danger of extreme weather.

Floods LATEST: Clean-up begins in south western France as anger risesPhoto: AFP

A “weakness” in the system

“It is clear that there is a weakness,” said the spokesman for France's Interior Ministry Frédéric de Lanouvelle in an interview with LCI.

“There is a weakness with the orange warning – we saw it with the snowfall in the (greater Paris region of) Ile-de-France a few months ago – it is used very often and when there is a real problem, people do not pay attention.”
Lanouvelle also went on to question the timing of the red alert.
“And then there is the problem of this red alert. I do not know by heart the process of triggering this warning, but in this case this night, given the testimony of some inhabitants, it was triggered too late,” he said. 
However the spokesperson went on to say that he did not want to lay the blame on Meteo France. 
“The difficulty of this phenomenon, first of all is the difficulty to predict it,” said Lanouvelle, adding that as soon as it had been predicted, “the red alert” had been given.
“I do not think it's linked to Météo France's incompetence but to a difficulty in evaluating the situation and it was a very powerful phenomenon, and it's clear that the relief was deployed as soon as possible but that conditions were very complicated.” 

There is also the question of whether the alert being raised earlier would have had the necessary impact. 
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe who visited the area affected by the flooding on Monday night said: “It is true that going from an orange alert to a red one at 3 am is easy enough to say but for the information to reach all those who are asleep, or even those who are not is a lot more complicated.”
Philippe also said the extreme weather was “unpredictable” and said all the local services were mobilised to deal with the tragedy.

“Rare situation”
The meterologists at Meteo France have also come out to defend their actions, describing Sunday's events as a “rare situation” and underlining the fact that the interior ministry and civil security department were aware that a worrying episode of weather was on the cards as early as Friday. 

Director of research at Meteo France Marc Pontaud said the forecast was “scrambled” for a long time by the displacement of “a group of clouds band linked to a stagnant cyclone” which he described as “a rare situation”.
“On Friday, civil protection services and the Ministry of the Interior were alerted that something would happen overnight from Sunday to Monday,” he said.
On Sunday, four departments were first placed on orange alert, Pontaud said, adding that an engineer was on duty overnight which is normal in complicated situations.
A flooded street in the city of Trèbes, near Carcassone, southern France. Photo: AFP
“In the forecasts we announced a lot of rain, but it was overnight that things were clarified and the situation around Carcassonne only happened at around 5 o'clock in the morning!”

Pontaud went on to deny any over-use of the orange alert, explaining that “a French department sees 5 to 10 orange alerts for heavy rainfall each year”, with about two or three in the Aude.
“It's not that much” he said, adding that what was important was to avoid missing situations. 
At the moment “we miss between 2-3 percent of situations every year” and “we have about 15 percent of false alarms”, he said. 
Villegailhenc, near Carcassonne. Photo: AFP
In the government-set targets for Météo France the national weather agency aims towards a non-detection rate of less than 3 percent and a false alarm rate of less than 20 percent, which according to Pontaud's figures, it is hitting.
In 2017, there were two red alerts in total, both for high winds in January and February. However in 2018 there have already been several red alerts, including in January for flooding in the Doubs and Jura, and for avalanches in the Alps.
Limits of predicting the weather
Another spokesperson from Meteo France said the situation simply highlights the limits meteorologist face when it comes to predicting the weather. 
“Before 6 am we were not capable of saying whether Aude, Herault or the Pyrenees-Orientales would be affected,” said Meteo France engineer Emmanuel Bocrie. 
“This is the limit of the art of meteorological predictions.”
In total, there have been a 28 red alerts triggered by Météo France since the introduction of the colour system at the end of 2001.
And French meteorologists have said in the next five to ten years they expect there to be further progress in terms of locating risky weather phenomenons.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (C) speaks with residents of Villegailhenc, near Carcassonne. Photo: AFP

However, no doubt there will be those caught up in the flooding who disagree with the assessment from meteorologists. 

One resident of Trebes, whose house was flooded, showed his anger during a visit by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Monday evening asking why weren't people warned in advance.
“There was a moment when you have to say 'OK this could be dangerous',” he said.
“Can no one keep an eye on the River Aude and send the firefighters into the street to tell people 'Get out of your homes, we are evacuating you'?. Could no one do that?”

The mayor Trebes Eric Ménassi responded: “The tragedy that we have been through was impossible to predict and overwhelming.”
“We were on the ground with my team since midnight. The heavy rain came at around 2am in a way that as sudden and extreme.”
The storms were triggered when a front of warm and humid air from the Mediterranean Sea slammed into colder air around the Massif Central mountain range, inundating an area from the eastern Pyrenees to Aveyron further north. 
This well-known weather pattern occurs three to six times a year in the region and nearly always triggers flash flooding.
But the French weather forecasting service, Meteo France, suggested these episodes had recently become more frequent and more severe.

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Is the French Riviera better equipped to avoid more deadly floods?

Exactly a year after devastating storm killed 10 people the Mediterranean coast of southern France is once again being hit by torrential rain and floods. But has anything improved to avoid more disaster and death?

Is the French Riviera better equipped to avoid more deadly floods?
Storm Alex battered Nice, but the city got away relatively lightly. Photo: ValeryHache / AFP

On October 2nd, 2020, Storm Alex dumped more than 500mm of rain on parts of the Alpes-Maritimes department of southeast France in a matter of hours.

That’s the equivalent of half-a-tonne of rain per square metre over the 10-hour period that the storm battered the area.

Ten people died and dozens of homes were washed away – as were bridges and businesses – as almost a year’s worth of rain caused flash floods and mudslides in the Vésubie, Roya and Tinée valleys, turning the usually gentle rivers into devastating torrents.

Alex and its aftermath was termed a ‘once in a generation’ flood but it was, in fact, the second ‘generational’ weather event in less than a month along the Mediterranean arc, after floods hit the Gard in mid-September. 

In November and then again in December 2019, Cannes and its surroundings were partially inundated. Four years before that, on the night of October 3rd and 4th, 2015, an épisode méditerranéen in an area stretching from Mandelieu to Antibes left 20 dead.

The aftermath of violent storms and floods in Biot, southeastern France, on October 4, 2015. Photo: Jean Christophe Magnenet / AFP

Today, three in five people in France are at risk of a climate-linked natural disaster such as flooding, fire or ground movement – and the risk is worsening.

Global warming has seen disasters double in 20 years, according to United Nations’ figures, while major events – categorised as those that result in 10 or more deaths or €30million in damage – have quadrupled in France over the same period.

This week southern France is once again being hit by a deluge that has forced schools to close and authorities to warn people to stay at home.

Now, residents in areas repeatedly hit by floods in the Alpes-Maritimes are demanding public authorities work to protect them from a threat that hangs over their heads every autumn when weather conditions subject the area around the Mediterranean to unique pressures. 

As global warming increases sea temperatures, so-called épisodes méditerranéens are becoming more intense and more frequent. The Côte d’Azur has no choice but to adapt. So what – if anything – is happening?

Reconstruction work along the Roya river 10 months after Storm Alex devastated the area in October 2020. Photo: Valery Hache / AFP

Property owners who decide to stay are choosing to protect and adapt their homes to the annual threat of floods. One told France Info  radio recently that she recalled being told as a child that furniture in a family friend’s home would be taken through a large trapdoor in the ceiling of a family friend’s home into the roofspace when the nearby river was in flood.

“People lived with the risk,” she said. “You can’t stop water with a wall. It falls from the sky.”

It’s a sentiment that officials are embracing. Valérie Emphoux, director of the flood prevention department of the Sophia-Antipolis agglomeration said: “We must adopt the flooding spirit.”

Those who live near water have to accept flooding as part of life, she added, ‘even if it means seeing it sometimes flow through the garden’.

Meanwhile, authorities routinely write to homeowners whose properties have boundaries with waterways, urging them to take down walls, or other impediments to natural water flow, while also urging those whose properties are crossed by waterways to maintain them properly.

Town planners must also bear part of the blame for the worsening effects of flash floods in an area well used to them. The demand for property in the southeast of the country has prompted a wave of building work.

Tony Damiano, of Avenir 06, which works to promote natural heritage in the department said. “In the last 10 years alone, it’s got worse in terms of urbanisation. The attraction of the Côte d’Azur, the sea, the aura of the area… Prices have increased considerably and all this brings in people for whom the protection of nature is not a priority. It has been sold to the highest bidder.”

In fact, human developments along the PACA coast since the 1960s has done nothing to help the natural flow of rivers to the sea. Roads, railways and buildings – many with underground car parks – block water unnaturally, giving rising waters nowhere else to go than the streets at times of heavy rain.

But it’s not all bad news. The floods of 2015 have prompted action. Where 26 houses once stoodin the hamlet of La Brague, near badly affected Biot, a €10million project will widen the riverbed as part of a ‘rewilding’ of the site to allow the river to flood naturally and safely.

An earlier, similar project, dating back to 2011, had an impact in 2015. The banks of La Brague river were widened and deepened. It helped lower river levels upstream by as much as 50cm. 

Meanwhile, in Cannes-Lerins, €20million has been allocated since 2016 to develop sustainable flood prevention systems. Some 40 homes have been demolished to create a basin to slow down the river. 

“The objective is to slow down floods,” town councillor Michel Tani said.  “Every minute gained allows us to make property and people safe. When the weather is bad, gaining 10 minutes is vital.”